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Papal Foot Washing Controversy

pope francis feet

Liturgical traditionalists are increasingly expressing their dismay with the new Pope. They shutter in horror at online videos of his time as an Archbishop with his Misa de Ninos featuring dialogue with children, clapping and life-sized puppets.

Now, critics are decrying his washing the feet of youth at a retention facility, and among these are young women, one of whom was a Muslim.

A directive from the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988 specified that “the washing of the feet of chosen men … represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve.’” The rule in the West is that only the feet of men can be washed, with an associated sacramental meaning pointing to the priesthood of the apostles.

The current law does allow local bishops to dispense from the law, as is done here in the Archdiocese of Washington, and some are suggesting that the Pope merely acted as the Bishop or Patriarch of Rome and not as the universal shepherd. However, the papacy is not like a hat that one can put on or take off with ease. The Pope is the Roman Rite. The late Pope John Paul II regularly broke the rubric about raising the host over the paten, preferring the chalice instead. Now it is a legitimate option in the Roman Missal. We might not like it, but the Pope has indeed called into question the rubric regarding the washing of the feet. However, as an optional rite, I would not see it as a genuine cause for controversy. Further, while associated with the priesthood, certain Church fathers, like St. Augustine connected the ritual instead to Christian baptism. It may be that this somewhat suppressed tradition is again breaking the surface.

Having said this, what are we to make “theologically” of Pope Francis washing the feet of a Muslim girl? The solution comes with the Pope’s own words, if only we will listen. He says, “This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service. …Don’t lose hope, understand? With hope you can always go on.” When a boy asked why he had visited them, he simply responded that it was to “help me to be humble, as a bishop should be.” Pope Francis said this visit and the ceremonial gesture emerged “from my heart. Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”

I suspect the Pope is expressing a theme which emerges immediately from the Scriptures. The one who would lead must be the servant of all. Our Lord did not minister only to Jews but to all who came to him. So too, in these perilous days, must the papacy be a vehicle for peace and charity in a world mad with intolerance and greed.

Liturgical traditionalists often celebrate beautiful liturgies. But dialogue with them is frequently difficult. The issue is deeper than anti-Semitism, but a belligerence with any and all, inside or outside the Church who disagree with them. The most rigid among them desire more than a place of their own in the universal Church; rather, they demand that all others surrender their places to them. This will not happen. Some of the traditionalists like the SSPX will probably not be coming home. The rhetoric will get nastier. The longer they remain juridically distinct, the more Sedevacantism will take hold.  The breakaway traditionalists really do not recognize either the priesthood or the Mass of what they call the Novus Ordo. Indeed, the use the term “Novus Ordo” as if it were a derogatory slur. If they did not like Pope Benedict XVI then the proverbial writing was certainly on the wall with Pope Francis. The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday has renewed cries of modernism on one side and the defense of his humility and simplicity on the other.

Here are a few of the messages I have received:

“If the SSPX are upset then it is entirely their fault. They could have regularized and bishops and maybe even an additional Cardinal or two from their alliance could have been added to the mix. Standing outside they forfeited their voice. Pope Benedict tried to help them, now they deserve what they get!”

“The SSPX can complain but refused to be part of the solution to liturgical abuses and excess. Maybe this is the Holy Spirit’s way of pushing their noses into what they see as a mess.”

“Did Jesus wash the feet of Catholics or Jews?”

“Who does this guy think he is? Oh wait, he is the Pope. Okay, I guess he can do as he pleases.”

“Some of you talk as if the SSPX were really part of the Church. They go through the motions, but have no standing and no say. They do not represent a legitimate option. Pope Francis is the Pope. Get used to it!”

“Could it be that this Pope Francis is what God wants and that we traditionalists have been wrong from the start?”

“Do you think the Pope was set up and someone slipped this Mohammedan gal into the mix without him knowing?”

“This Pope has taken the name of a deacon, not a priest. He has embraced the mendicant Francis. He is on the record that the Church should be reduced to poverty. Priests get ready to see your rectories exchanged for roach-filled apartments and bus tickets for the cars you once owned. Here is a man who takes seriously the charge of Jesus to the rich man!”

“One of the boys at the feet washing had a foot covered in gang-related and possibly obscene tattoos. I can see that photograph being splashed around the world. Here is the Vicar of Christ, bowing down and kissing the foot of a vulgar criminal. This makes me so mad. There hasn’t been something as scandalous as this since Jesus allowed his feet to be washed and dried in a prostitute’s hair!”

“This matter of the new Pope has merely unveiled the unyielding disobedience and disrespect that has been hiding behind traditionalist intransigence all along!”

37 Responses

  1. dear father Joe , i would like to comment on this wonderful man who is the current pope. His words and deeds are so inspiring . i would that we could all follow this gentle man
    https://twitter.com/Pontifex
    i’d like to echo the thunderous applause the faithful know he is due
    thank you too, for sharing -over-

  2. Father Joe: you said “Regarding discipline and such ritualistic rules, the Pope is the law.”

    This is an extreme example obviously, but does your statement mean that if the Pope varied from the Church law and dressed like Batman (or something equally ridiculous) to offer the Mass that all priests would be allowed to do so?

    FATHER JOE: No, that would probably mean mental illness. The Roman Rite developed in the Church on the basis that other churches wanted to imitate what was done at papal Masses. Historically, this would give structure to the liturgy, although other local rites (or those relating to religious orders) would also emerge and find approval from the Holy See. Over time, more and more was set down in writing and policies established.

    My concern is not he washed women’s feet; I understand this rite is not a sacrament and theologically who’s feet are washed has no significance really, but what about the rampant liturgical abuses that occur every week at Mass? How can this not undermine any effort at liturgical reform?

    FATHER JOE: You would have to ask such questions of the Holy See. As a mere priest, and you as a layman, we can ask such questions and/or make tactful and respectful criticism, but such is still the domain of the Church’s chief law maker. He can do what we cannot. Eventually, as with the changed rubric about the elevated host over the chalice (JP II’s practice) and not the paten, such can become an option for the whole Church. I recall a sermon of St. Augustine’s where he connected the footwashing with baptism and not so much with priesthood. However, the latter connection is the more usual and certainly fits the theology of the fourth Gospel. There were even early Christian authorities who supposed that the footwashing might be a unique divine mystery or sacrament; however, such has not been the traditional judgment of the Church.

    And finally a comment: I don’t believe you are guilty of this, but among some Catholics there is a reluctancy to admit that Pope’s can even make mistakes… I would argue that Pope Francis did make a mistake by breaking from Church law without explaining that others should not feel free to do so. But c’mon, he’s human! Of course he will make mistakes. I would never leave the Church over this. I might be frustrated because I have experiences many annoying disheartening liturgical abuses in my 30 years on this earth… but I would NEVER lose faith.

    FATHER JOE: Yes, it is certainly true that Popes can make practical mistakes. Part of the dilemma might be that he is still getting acclimated to his new position and obligations. The faith and moral teachings of the Church have not been assailed. The debate here is about prudential decisions. It is also true that some misconstrue and draw too much from certain actions. Note how the liberals who praised him early on are madder than hell that he should reaffirm the crackdown on U.S. nuns for heresy and disobedience.

    The same applies to John Paul II kissing the Koran. I argue that was a mistake that still causes scandal to this day. We have to admit that our Pope’s are human and can make mistakes. Each and every act of a Pope is not holy and righteous or should be rationalized. Sometimes, people make mistakes. No biggie if they meant no harm and the matter isn’t grave. Thanks!

    FATHER JOE: Certainly the Koran kiss has given a great deal of fodder to those who condemn the Church and renounce the authority of recent popes. Of course, you and I both know that Pope John Paul II was no Moslem and did not actually confirm the book as inspired. He intended the act as an expression of hospitality and welcome. He was not recommending the contents of the book, but merely showing human respect to his visitors who identified themselves by the gift. They gave to him that which they most prized. Receiving it, he extended the sign of peace in a spirit or manner they would readily recognize. Had he known what trouble this would cause, you are right, he might have opted for something else… or at least to keep the cameras away.

  3. This Holy Week has surely taken me to the Cross. I have defended the Church and her practices for many years. Now I am made out to look like a liar and fool! The last time I felt this bad was when Rome approved altar girls!

    FATHER JOE: The involvement of altar girls in the Mass has not destroyed the Church and neither will the washing the feet of a couple girls.

  4. Can it get any worse?

    FATHER JOE: Is it really that bad? I question the sense of proportion.

  5. The Pope by definition is a servant of the Church and tradition. This one has made himself the master of the missal and gives little thought to what came before.

    FATHER JOE: The Pope did nothing immoral. I will say it again, the Pope is the Roman Rite. While the Eucharist is Christ’s gift to us, the Pope and the Church is indeed the master of the missal.

  6. It is said that he wondered why the Vatican even needed its own bank. I would not be surprised that it disappears along with its post office. Indeed, he will probably hand the whole property over to the Italian authorities. There goes United Nations representation and papal nuncios.

    FATHER JOE: The world did not end after the loss of the Papal States. I trust that whatever comes to pass, the Church will endure. Is it so bad to place the spiritual meaning of the Church above the material?

  7. Pope Francis is the best thing that has ever happened to the SSPX! Now there can be no doubt. True believers will be breaking down the doors to get away from this Roman Protestant masquerade.

    FATHER JOE: If such is how you feel then reunion is indeed impossible. But that will cut you off juridically from the true Church.

  8. Given enough time, he will make Cardinals sharing his views. That means that we will have to suffer a low-church ecclesiology for many years to come.

    FATHER JOE: Pope Benedict XII also named a number of cardinals… really what happens will happen. Those who guess are suually wrong. The Holy Spirit also has a role, have you forgotten?

  9. I suspect some of the Cardinals are now thinking, “Holy cr–! What have we done?

    FATHER JOE: Popes are servants of the servants of the Church; howwever, they are not in absolute bondage to their electors.

  10. Pope Francis is going out of his way to impugn and reverse the work of Pope Benedict XVI. I have lost all hope!

    FATHER JOE: Pope Benedict XVI was a wonderful and brilliant shepherd. Pope Francis will have his own style and focus. Different does not mean opposition.

  11. I certainly see in his actions and hope that what he was doing was serving and not being served. He is humble and I think showing this. JESUS loved all even His enemies.

  12. First no mozzetta, no red shoes, then no pallium and now this; he really does not care how he breeches tradition and hurts us. He spurns the papal limo and will probably exchange the papal apartments for a shack or tent in St. Peter’s square.

    FATHER JOE: He is living in a small guest room. So what?

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